A Room with a View: a Look at Outdoor Kitchens

While some trends come and go, the outdoor kitchen has moved from luxury concept to mainstream reality. In 2005, Americans spent $150 billion on renovations and, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, one-third of that went for outdoor living spaces. As is true indoors, the kitchen – be it simply a grill or something more elaborate in nature – is usually the center of this space.

Accordingly, manufacturers and fabricators of cabinetry, appliances, surfaces and other components of the kitchen have stepped up to the plate, and kitchen designers are doing the same as it pertains to these spaces. With all of this attention being paid to outdoor living, it seems a good time to take a look at a few of the issues that are unique to the design of a successful outdoor kitchen environment.

To begin, we must consider the same factors we look at for indoor kitchens: the client’s wish list, budget and space. Among the additional issues we must look at in planning an outdoor kitchen are the location of the kitchen, the site and climate conditions that will impact it, and the selection of products and materials that will be safe and durable for use specifically in that outdoor space.

Location, Location, Location

In many cases, the outdoor kitchen works in conjunction with other social areas of the home. For that reason, sometimes the best place for it is just outside the indoor kitchen. Because most food, equipment and tableware are located nearby, this makes for easy and efficient enjoyment of the space, whether entertaining or enjoying a quiet family meal.

But while it makes connections to power and water easier and more direct, it can also increase the risk of overexposure to fumes and fire. Therefore, ventilation and distance to flammable surfaces must be carefully planned.

Sometimes a particular view – a garden, an activity center such as a pool, or the lay of the land – will clearly dictate placement of the outdoor kitchen further from the main house. This is a decision that can benefit from teaming with a landscape designer to be sure climate-related issues are used to best advantage.

It’s essential to consider the levelness of the land in and near the area where the kitchen is going to be located. An area that is not perfectly level will create havoc with the installation as well as use of the cabinetry and equipment, and a low-lying area may invite drainage problems.

One important consideration when designing an outdoor kitchen is that typical wind direction will dictate the direction cooking odors and smoke will take. This will dramatically influence ventilation needs and efficiency.

Something else to keep in mind is that, often, a landscape designer can help with the design and specification of the water feature and/or fire pit, which are frequently featured as part of the outdoor social space.

Another consideration must be the degree of privacy desired by the client and how it might best be accomplished. Often landscaping will create the “walls” of the space and the desired seclusion. Sun and shade should also be considered, so as to best take advantage of sunsets, summer shade, etc.

Among the other points to cover in locating the space is its impact on views from the interior layout. Additionally, depending on whether the outdoor kitchen is near or far from the house, a smooth traffic area between them will be important so items can easily be transported back and forth during meal preparation or clean up, for instance.

Products and Materials

In recent years, everyone has been getting into the outdoor kitchen act and, as a result, many appliances have been UL-rated for outdoor use. Further digging can reveal what maintenance is required to make the appliance effective in the open-air application, with many of them needing shelter or even discontinued use in inclement weather or climates of extreme temperature.

Still, the advent of these appliances greatly expands the options for cooking, dining and entertaining “al fresco.”

Among the options for cabinetry are those available from some of the appliance manufacturers that have expanded the grill to encompass an entire module that incorporates cooking equipment, storage space and a usable work surface. Others are available in stainless steel, and some come in teak, cedar or other rot-resistant woods, as well as rot- and UV-resistant polymers. I would advise that kitchen and bath designers be sure that the cabinetry is intended for outdoor use, and that all of its components and adhesives will withstand the exposure to the elements, especially if extreme and inclement weather conditions are a possibility at the site.

It’s also helpful if all of the cabinet doors have latches and gaskets or are otherwise constructed to keep out dust, dirt, moisture and critters. For example, some cabinetry is designed with interior drains to allow wind-driven rain to drain out if it does get in.

The best outdoor floor and counter surface options are often natural, such as granite or slate – products that are used to the wear and tear of outdoor exposure. These are generally best chosen in lighter colors so as not to absorb as much of the sun’s heat. Concrete and stainless are also good choices, and certain tiles can be more durable than stone, particularly for the floor.
Environmental controls and systems such as ventilation, heat, sound and light are often neglected when planning the outdoor kitchen, yet these are essential elements to the success of the overall space.

To that end, the first consideration must be how the outdoor system will be powered. Therefore, consider powering the outdoor kitchen either through a common wall with the house or, if in a remote location, through buried cables and lines that are carefully regulated. If the grill is to be enclosed, it must be vented just as it would be indoors. If it is not enclosed, it should be planned away from the very center of the social space and, if possible, downwind to avoid having smoke blowing back at those dining.

In climates that can benefit from this sort of application, one heat supplement is the propane-free standing heater, and another possibility is the fireplace or pit, both of which give off at least a sense of warmth. In some cases, radiant heat can be run beneath a patio floor or under the countertops – an expensive but effective option.

Sound systems also greatly expand the social aspect of the outdoor space and can either be wired to connect to the in-house stereo system, or in other situations, wired to act independently. Incredible speakers have been created to work off of iPods and similar storage devices.

Finally, good lighting is critical to the success of an outdoor kitchen. Just as with the indoor kitchen, there must be ample amounts of ambient and task lighting. Often, the ambient lighting is remembered, but the task lighting is not, and it can be tough to control the cooking process if the cook cannot see the food. In addition, motion-activated lighting to guide the way to the garbage or back to the house can be helpful, providing added safety.

The more I write about this space, the more I realize this is just the beginning of the story of design for outdoor kitchens. In a future column, we’ll look more closely at other guidelines for design of the space and storage, as well as the aesthetic of the outdoor kitchen.

Happily, outdoor kitchens are not going away. These spaces are an opportunity and a challenge for us as designers. I’m sure that, as their uses continue to expand, we can build on the basic ideas presented here and create even more dynamic spaces in the future.